A visit to the oldest operating winery in the US

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When one thinks of Los Angeles, one immediately thinks of entertainment, the film industry, or the beaches, but rarely wine. Everyone knows that California wine country is located further north. However, few people know that in the early 20th century, before Prohibition, tons of wineries existed further south, centered in LA. Now, the San Antonio winery is the only one of those pre-prohibition wineries that remains. Finding myself in LA for a few days, I decided to check it out.

The San Antonio winery was founded in 1917 by an Italian immigrant named Santo Cambianica; today the winery is still owned by the 90-something year old nephew of the founder! The young winery was hit by a crisis two years later with the beginning of the failed experiment that was Prohibition. The winery only survived by becoming the provider of communion wine to the Roman Catholic Church; it certainly didn’t hurt that the winery was named after a saint! Even today, sacramental wine makes up a substantial portion of their business. Apparently every year the Roman Catholic church orders a special blend which is custom made by the winery (what grapes go into the wine wasn’t said).

The tour itself was interesting, but much of it covered things that educated wine drinkers would already know. The tour seemed to be designed for novice wine drinkers who had never visited a winery before and had very little idea how wine was made. For example, one of the questions asked on the tour was “when do you add the spices to the wine…because the grapes aren’t spicy.” Being the wine geek that I am, I found that question a bit silly, but our guide turned it into a great teaching moment on the wonders of wine. Our guide was great and had a ton of experience both in working in the cellars and vineyards. Best of all, it was free!

At the wine bar, they offered complementary tastings of 3 wines, either from their California lineup or an associated Italian brand, Stella Rosa (mostly Prosecco, Moscato, and a few other sweet, fruit-infused wines). I ended up tasting four wines from their California lineup, all of them from vineyards in the Central Coast: the 2013 Viognier, 2012 Pinot Noir, 2011 Merlot, and 2010 Syrah. My favorite of the four was the Viognier, creamy yet dry and smelled of peaches and melon that lingered onto the finish. The Syrah was my next favorite, with both fruit and structure. The Merlot was also nice, with a very peppery nose but not much fruit. I was a little disappointed with the Pinot; there wasn’t anything wrong with it, but there was noting that made it distinctive. Then again, my standards for Pinot Noir are rather high. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the Viognier—for $18.95, it seemed like a decent deal given the quality.

All in all, the visit was a very fun, affordable few hours. If anyone who likes wine and history is downtown LA and looking for something to do, I’d highly recommend a visit.


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